Elections official says Hennepin glitch was in reporting, not vote count

State Republican Party officials announced Wednesday they intend to 'overturn every stone' in search of votes in a likely recount of the gubernatorial race, and that quest may lead them to take a hard look at Hennepin County.

On election night, a Hennepin County elections official made a mistake which temporarily inflated the total number of votes cast in the county. That mistake put Dayton ahead of Emmer by 60,000 votes. Sutton said he's not sure if the mistake was due to fraud or incompetence.

But Hennepin County Elections Manager Rachel Smith, 33, said the error was in the reporting of poll data -- not the actual vote count.

"So the individual precincts were giving us their data, we have no reason to think that was inaccurate in any way," Smith said. "It was when we were creating the file and how we released the file."

Rachel Smith
Hennepin County elections manager Rachel Smith said that on Election Night, a technical glitch threw the county's total off, but there was no reason to doubt the individual precinct vote totals.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Smith says the mistake happened when an elections official received a final update of vote numbers from precincts shortly before 10 p.m. Instead of replacing the previous numbers with the newest numbers, the worker clicked a button that added the old numbers on top of the new ones. Smith said that produced an unnaturally high vote total.

"We were looking at the returns and noticed that there was obviously a large number of people voting in Hennepin County, and it was more than the people registered as of 7 a.m.," she said. "So that was an immediate flag for me that there was something not right."

Smith said the error was found and corrected within about 45 minutes. However, due to a glitch with the Secretary of State's website, she said the corrected vote totals weren't posted until about 12:30 a.m.

Though this is Rachel Smith's first major election as the head of Hennepin County's elections department, she's not new to the job nor is she unfamiliar with contentious elections. Before taking over the post in March, Smith led the Anoka County Elections office for four years.

During her tenure at Anoka County, Smith supervised its recount of more than 180,000 ballots in the 2008 Franken-Coleman recount, and it appears that particular experience may come in handy for Smith in the weeks, perhaps months, to come.

Republicans unseated dozens of incumbent Democrats after last night's election, and a Republican newcomer upset longtime U.S. Rep. James Oberstar. So Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton says it doesn't make sense that their candidate for governor, Tom Emmer, wound up a little more than 9,000 votes behind Democrat Mark Dayton.

"Because something doesn't smell right when you take control of the state house; you take control of the state senate; you win in the 8th Congressional District, and yet, somehow we don't win the governor's race," Sutton said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

Sutton said he's particularly suspicious of the vote totals from Hennepin County.

"If they made a mistake like that, surely there's a potentiality for other mistakes," he said.

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